Look at it floating out there in the dead of space; no power, no life signs, no sign of how it came to be there. The crew of any respectable spacefaring vessel can have only one response to stumbling across such a find in the cold dark void of infinity: “OMG!!!!! CAPTAIN!!!! CAPTAIN LOOK!!! ITS A SHIP!!! BUT NO ONES ON IT!!! CAN WE GO ABOARD!?!?!! PLEASE, PRETTY PLEASE CAN WE GO ABOARD!?!?!! WE HAVE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!!! PRETTY PLEASE CAPTAIN??!!! WE HAVE TO KNOW!!!” and the brave Captain musters all his commander’s charisma, puts asides his reservations and sends over an away team to check things out. Or maybe its the first officer who has the reservations, or the hot shot pilot. Doesn’t matter. Somebody is going to have reservations. Because (wrap up cold open and cue opening credits) This episode of Troping the Riff is all about:
THE GHOST SHIP (dun-dun-dunnnnnn)
A staple of science fiction series The Ghost Ship has great use as an early season one and done episode that comes stocked with tension because as soon as they get over to that abandoned ship our interstellar heroes are usually going to be asking one of two questions “What killed the crew?” or “Where the hell is the crew”. Of course with such a popular trope their have been a lot of variations. Perhaps there is a sole survivor with mysterious motivations. Or maybe a rival salvage team. The unseen enemy and race against time are popular as well.
If done well the Ghost Ship can be a taught, tense hour of Alien/Jaws like suspense that can be used to show of your characters ingenuity and problem solving or to create strong character moments driven by genuine terror. If done poorly it will be a stale, predictable episode leaving the viewer screaming “It’s a virus Idiot/You’re not alone Jackass/ Quit starring into her eyes and figure out she’s the killer fucktard”
Keeping that in mind here are a few episodes that I feel do the Ghost Ship justice: Doctor Who’s “The Girl in the Fireplace” is a bit different in the set up because well it’s the Doctor and he just appears in the Ghost Ship but after that it’s a pure and yet still wildly original take on the trope. On top of that it may be the best episode of the revival series to date. Firefly’s “Bushwhacked” is a great example of this trope checking all the main boxes. And it’s Firefly so if you haven’t already seen it I don’t really want you reading my blog. Farscape has many of these episodes and “PK Tech Girl” is the one most cited but for my money I’d go with the season three episode “Eat Me”. And of course the Granddaddy of all Sci-Fi series the Star Trek Franchise where this trope shows up over and over again but is perhaps best used in The Next Generation Episode “Booby Trap” (although my love of LeVar Burton may make me biased as this is one of his finest episodes).
If you have any other examples of please feel free to share them in the comments section. I’d love to see them.